Neil Harpe – the “Stella Guitarcheologist”

What did they play?

H. C. Speir was a record store owner and talent scout in Jackson Mississippi. He was responsible for launching the recording careers of some of the most important Mississippi blues singers…including Charley Patton, Skip James, Willie Brown, Ishmon Bracey, William Harris and a host of others. When he was asked what kind of guitars these guys played, his answer was: ”Stellas – they all played the old cheap Stella guitars, across the board.”

Although their music is familiar to us today, not much documentation exists about the lives of many blues artists who recorded during the 1920s and 1930s. In most cases if we want to know what brand or model of guitar the artist played, we have to rely on photographs or occasional eye witness accounts. In some cases no photo has been found and we don’t even know what that artist looked like. With others only one picture has turned up. Unfortunately, the accuracy of a single picture can be misleading.

A good example is the one known photo of Charley Patton. Obviously a studio shot, he’s posed with what appears to be a Stromberg-Voisinet parlor guitar in his lap. Is the guitar in that picture a prop provided for the photo op, or is it Patton’s own instrument? According to an account given to Gayle Dean Wardlow by the Reverend Pearly Brown, who knew Patton personally, Charley Patton’s guitar was a black Stella with a white neck.  Presumably he was describing a guitar with a  “pearlette”  (artificial mother-of-pearl) fingerboard that is often jokingly called “mother-of-toilet-seat”.

Like many other country blues and old time music enthusiasts, I have studied grainy black & white photos of musicians with their instruments in hand. A lot of us have wondered what kind of guitar Blind Lemon Jefferson has in his lap in the one known photograph of him. Is it a Stella? Is it a Washburn? We may never know the answer. Even if we could discern the maker of that instrument, it may have been a prop and not Jefferson’s own guitar.

On his legendary 1931 recordings for Paramount, Skip James is said to have played a jumbo Stella 12-string guitar strung with six only strings. But it was not Skip’s guitar. That jumbo Stella was furnished by the recording company for the recording session. If Skip owned a Stella guitar at all, it was probably a smaller model.

The identity of Blind Blake’s guitar has been the subject of much speculation. Only one photo of Blake is known. The guitar in the photo looks like it has a dark top, leading some to speculate that it was a mahogany or koa wood instrument. But the lighting might account for the dark appearance. At any rate, who is to say that this was Blake’s one and only guitar?  It is  possible that Blind Blake had numerous instruments, not just the instrument shown in that picture.

Blind Willie McTell is probably the most photo-documented of the country blues performers. Having a shiny new axe was an important element of a bluesman’s public image. So McTell would trade in his guitar for a new one on a regular basis.